Writing letters isn’t as common as it used to be. And that makes sense, when you think of how easy it is to email or, if it’s more urgent, text or call someone. And, yet, letters used to be the backbone of communication.
They’ve also served an interesting purpose in crime fiction: to sound an alarm, so to speak, and ask for help. There are plenty of examples of stories where someone writes a letter that gets the sleuth involved in a case. These are just a few instances; I know you’ll think of more.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Violet Hunter writes a letter to Sherlock Holmes, asking his advice on whether she should take a new position as governess for a six-year-old boy. Jephro Rucastle, who has made the offer, has also made a few odd requests, and he unsettles Violet in a few ways. But the offer is a good one. When Holmes hears the whole story, he advises his new client not to take the job. She’s of a mind to take that advice, too. But then, Rucastle increases the offer to a number that she cannot resist. Holmes knows he can’t stop Violet from taking the job. But he does tell her that if she needs him, all she has to do is let him know. Before long, she does just that. Things have gone from odd to eerie, and even dangerous, and Violet asks for help. Holmes and Watson travel to the Rucastle home just in time to solve a deadly mystery.
Agatha Christie uses letters in more than one of her stories. In The Murder on the Links, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Renauld says that his life is in danger, and he begs Poirot to come and help. Usually, Poirot is not much for being summoned (right, fans of Dead Man’s Mirror?), but this letter gets his attention, and he and Captain Hastings go to France. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late: Renauld has been murdered. Poiorot and Hastings look into the matter and find out the truth about the case. And it turns out to be more complicated than it seems on the surface.
The real action in Dashiell Hammett’s short story, Fly Paper, begins when Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who’s cut off all contact with her family. She’s been reportedly mixed up with some very dangerous people, so Hambleton wants to be sure she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. That letter spurs him on, and he points the private investigator towards Sue’s last known address. It turns out the address belongs to a thug named Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, and he’s not the only thug Sue’s been associated with lately. Slowly, the detective (who is not named in the story) tracks down Sue’s actual address, but by the time he does, it’s too late: Sue is dead of what turns out to be arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a murder (or suicide) investigation.
In Catriona McPherson’s The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour that begins this way:
‘Dear Mrs. Gilver,
…My husband is going to kill me, and I would rather he didn’t.’
The letter goes on to say that Lollie fears for her life, and to ask Dandy to investigate surreptitiously by taking a position as a maid in the Balfour household. Dandy takes the case and goes on a fake ‘interview’ to get the details from her new client. She soon moves in and starts investigating. But the next night, someone murders Lollie’s husband, Philip ‘Pip.’ Now, Dandy is involved in a murder investigation that turns out to be much more complicated than it seemed on the surface.
Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduces Botswana’s only female private investigator, Mma Precious Ramotswe. In one of her cases, she receives a letter from a teacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. The letter is heartbreaking, and Mma Ramotswe is moved by it. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. Among many other things, this disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, which is a politically very sensitive issue. It’s going to take tact and perseverance to find out what has happened to the boy. But Mr. Pakoti is desperate to get his son back if that’s possible, and Mma Ramotswe is determined to do just that.
And then there’s Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic. In that novel, which takes place just after WW II, we meet idealistic young attorney Regina Robichard. She’s working for the NAACP in New York City, and hoping to make a difference there. Everything changes when the NAACP gets a letter from reclusive author M.P. Calhoun. As it happens, Calhoun wrote one of Robichard’s best-loved books from childhood, so she’s intrigued. In the letter, Calhoun alleges that a returning black veteran named Joe Howard Wilson was murdered. It’s clear from the letter that Calhoun wants the murder investigated, so Robichard decides to make the trip to Revere, Mississippi, where the alleged crime took place. As she starts to ask questions, Robichard learns that things are not always as they seem, and that she has much to learn.
There isn’t as much use of letters these days as there was. But they do offer the crime writer a lot of opportunities for getting the sleuth (and the reader) involved in a case. This is just a sampling. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wayne Carson’s The Letter.